This online material expands on the subject of sacred music in the Renaissance, and we'll look at Palestrina, the most important composer from the later part of the era.
Once you are finished with this page you can open exercise #3 and answer 10 questions about it. I would actually recommend keeping the exercise open in a separate tab and answering the questions as you read.
I. Intro: Sacred Polyphony in the Renaissance
In general, this church music in the Renaissance is considered "the good stuff" for people who like Early Music. (I personally would say that it's my favorite kind of choral music from any time in of music history.) There are a lot of groups who specialize in this repertoire and you could very easily go hear it live in New York City.
For instance, here is a group called NY Polyphony performing some Palestrina in a church near Times Square. They do this music with one person singing each part.
(Also, note how they are presenting it in the all-male format that was still very common in the Renaissance.)
Here's an English group named Stile Antico singing part of a Mass by William Byrd, another late Renaissance composer. This group is putting 2-3 people on each part and of course they have women singing the soprano and alto lines. This is also considered a legit way to perform Renaissance polyphony!
In our class, people seem to underestimate how dominant sacred music is in the Renaissance. For the test, we study an equal number of sacred and secular pieces, and we do the secular lesson second, so students often get the mistaken impression that there is a big shift towards secular music in the Renaissance. That's not really true!
My personal guesstimate would be that the ratio of sacred-to-secular in the Middle Ages is about 95% to 5%. (This is based solely on the written-down music that survives. That 5% includes the work of the minstrels, troubadours and trouvères which we've already talked about.)
The Renaissance is maybe still 80%-20% sacred, or 70-30. (These are just my own made-up numbers, so don't quote me on this.)
So my general point here in Part One is that this fancy religious music is still the main event in the Renaissance. It's still the composer's main job and remains a favorite for music fans today.
II. Quick Review: Mass, Cantus Firmus
At this point we know that much of this sacred music was used in the Catholic religious service called Mass. After Guillaume de Machaut makes his polyphonic Messe di Nostre Dame around 1360 it becomes normal for composers to write complete Masses which include music for each unchanging part of the service in a standard ordering - Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, and so on.
We also know that composers of sacred music tend to use a fragment of pre-existing Gregorian chant as a sort of foundation or framework for their new polyphonic piece. The pre-existing part is called the cantus firmus, or fixed voice, and the idea is that it is supposed to keep its shape while the composer builds around it.
Here's my video showing how Machaut incorporated the cantus firmus into his Mass.
As we get into the Late Renaissance there is actually some controversy about what makes for a proper cantus firmus line in a Mass.
III. The Catholic Counter-Reformation 1545-63
In our intro to the Renaissance we talked about the emergence of Protestantism, the new, competing version of Christianity that flourished in the German-speaking areas of Europe. This Protestant Reformation is one of the factors that makes the Renaissance new and kind of exciting.
"Martin Luther’s 95 Theses" by Ferdinand Pauwels, 1872
However, from the Catholic point of view this was all a huge disaster, as the church suddenly lost influence over a large part of Europe. So, in 1545 they began a series of conferences called the Council of Trent which went on for almost two decades. All of the important figures within the Church met and examined everything that the Catholics had been doing. This is known as the Counter-Reformation, the Catholics' somewhat defensive response to the Protestant Reformation.
A depiction of the Council of Trent by Pasquali Cati, 1588
Obviously the delegates at the Council of Trent had a lot to talk about, and one of the issues they wanted to address was the role of the arts and music in their religion.
What was their problem with the music?
The Counter-Reformers thought that the music in the church had become too complex and showy, and that this extreme polyphony made the words too difficult to hear.
Here's one of the most wacked-out examples of Mid-Renaissance Sacred Music I could find, by Pierre de la Rue.
It's not too crazy, but it does sound pretty difficult to sing. It's easy to imagine that the Church thought this music was drawing too much attention to itself and distracting from the intended religious message.
Another problem they had with this kind of piece is its secular cantus firmus. By this point composers had apparently become bored with basing their work on the traditional Gregorian chant melodies. Instead, they started to use secular tunes. Pierre de la Rue's Mass is built around a popular tune called "L'homme Armé" or "The Armed Man."
|L’homme armé doibt on doubter.|
On a fait partout crier
Que chascun se viegne armer
D’un haubregon de fer.
L’homme armé doibt on doubter.
The armed man should be feared.|
Everywhere it has been proclaimed
That each man shall arm himself
With a coat of iron mail.
The armed man should be feared.
The Counter-Reformers thought that a tune like this had no place in the Church. They wanted Renaissance composers to cool it with the complex polyphony and to stop using secular materials in their Masses.
Palestrina's Pope Marcellus Mass (1555)
The composer who gave the Church what it wanted was Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. His Pope Marcellus Mass is very carefully constructed so that the words are always clear.
The movement we are going to look at for the quiz (the Gloria) is almost entirely homophonic, with all the parts working together to make big, blended chords. Since the parts are all in sync everyone is saying the same thing at the same time and there is no confusion.
Other movements from this mass are a little more polyphonic, but they are always very carefully organized and very clear.
The Legend: Palestrina Saves Polyphony
There is a legend that has grown up around this piece over the years. The story is that the Council of Trent wanted to ban polyphony altogether and go back to monophonic Gregorian Chant. Palestrina supposedly composed the Pope Marcellus Mass as a response to the Counter-Reformers, and he was said to have done a demonstration performance for them in order to show that you could have polyphony AND still hear the text.
Thus, Palestrina was credited with saving music as we know it! This legend was popular amongst historians in the 19th century and provided the plot for at least one opera.
However, there is no evidence that such a demonstration performance ever took place, or that the Council of Trent really wanted to ban any music. Like many of the popular anecdotes in music history, this story is probably a huge exaggeration.
What we can say with some confidence is that Palestrina's relatively conservative way of writing was in line with what the Church wanted, and it made him the most influential composer of the Late Renaissance period. Other Late Renaissance composers (like Lassus, Byrd and Tallis) also tend to write with a big, blended, and somewhat homophonic sound.
OK! Now it is time to open Exercise #3 and answer 10 questions about this material.